The Gagauz, A Christian Turkic People

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    The Gagauz, a Christian Turkic people

    Friday, March 17, 2006
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    Ingmar Karlsson*

    Following the disintegration of the Soviet empire on Aug. 19, 1990, a hitherto unknown Christian people suddenly emerged on the map of Europe. Wedged in between Romania and Ukraine in the southwestern corner of the 65 percent Romanian-speaking Moldavian Soviet Republic, the independent Republic of Gagauzia was proclaimed.

    The foundation was thereby laid for yet another conflict in what was once the Soviet Union. Shortly after the proclamation of the Republic of Gagauzia, the Russians and Ukrainians in the area east of the Dnjestr proclaimed their own Soviet Republic led by former Communists, the “Socialist Soviet Moldavian Republic of Djnestr.” This “Transnistria” confirmed its ambition to become independent in a referendum held on Dec. 1, 1991.

    Who were these Gagauz who were now demanding their place on the map of Europe?

    Their origin is unclear. There are no less than 19 different theories about their origin. According to a Romanian theory they are an ancient Romanian tribe — the “Uzi” — who originally lived north of the Danube River. According to other explanations they are Christian Turks, Turkic Slavic Bulgarians, Turkic Greeks, descendents of the Turkic Bulgarians, or a combination of these peoples.

    The most accepted theory claims that the Gagauz are descendents of the Turkic Oğuz tribes who in the seventh century, together with the Huns, the Khazars, the Avars, the Petchenegs, and the Kumans, left the Altai mountains, today the borderland between the former Soviet Union and Mongolia. Across the steppes of Central Asia and the areas around the Caspian Sea they finally reached the plains south of the outflow of the Danube where they settled. According to this theory, when the Bulgarians under Boris I converted to Christianity in 864, the Gagauz followed their example.

    Fleeing from the Mongols, they are said to have received from the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologous in Constantinople in 1261 an area of land along the Black Sea coast in the borderland between what is now Bulgaria and Romania. Under their sultan, Izz al-Din Kay-Kaus, they established an independent state there with the present day city of Kavarna as its capital. The new state, the population of which is believed to have gotten its name through a derivation from this Kay Kaus, built its own army and navy. It lasted until 1398 when the last Gagauz ruler was forced to recognize the supremacy of the Ottoman sultan in worldly matters. The Gagauz retained their religion, however, and only adopted the language of their conquerors. The Greek Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople remained the head of the church and Church Slavonic and Greek were kept as liturgical languages.

    In the mid-18th century, Gagauz emigration across the Danube into Russia began and when the Russians withdrew, after having occupied large parts of present-day Bulgaria in their war with the Turks, practically all of the remaining Gagauz population followed along and settled in the areas of present-day Moldova, which now constitutes their center.

    A Russian observer described them as “Turkic-Bulgarian bastards.” In a Russian census from 1897 they are not included as a particular group but are lumped together with Moldovans, Vlachs, Ruthenians, Romany, and other minority peoples in this area. They are included among the approximately 55,000 “Ottoman Turks” and 100,000 Bulgarians who were then registered.

    At the beginning of the 20th century, close to 90 percent of Gagauz men and practically all the women were illiterate.

    During the inter-war period, when the Gagauz areas in what was known as Bessarabia belonged to Romania, no efforts were made to improve the living conditions of this small minority. A kind of Gagauz mini renaissance occurred, however, in the 1920s and 1930s thanks to the efforts of a priest. He compiled a first Gagauz dictionary and wrote grammar rules of the Gagauz language. He translated various religious documents and also wrote a short Gagauz history but he did not discuss any theories about the origin of these people.

    As a result of the so-called Hitler-Stalin Pact signed before World War II, Bessarabia was allotted to the Soviet Union. The situation did not improve after World War II as “Gagauzia” became part of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. The language had traditionally been written using Greek letters. A Cyrillic Gagauz alphabet was construed in 1957. The following year, under Chruschev's “thaw,” schools were opened with teaching in Gagauz and textbooks were written for this purpose in this language, but these schools were short-lived. They were closed in the early 1960s and Gagauz subsequently disappeared entirely from the educational system and cultural life in general, and it was not even a subject of academic linguistic studies any more.

    An anthology of Gagauz poetry was published in 1964 but there are very few other works. A magazine in Gagauz was issued twice a month in Chisinau as a supplement to the party organ Moldova Socialista. Beside several ethnographic studies that were published, a grammar book was published in 1990, but it was in Russian with very few translations into Gagauz. During the entire post-war Soviet period from 1945-1990, only some 30 books, including translations, were published in the language.

    The Gagauz were traditionally engaged in agriculture, animal husbandry and wine production. During the Soviet period, the Gagauz population lived mainly in kolchoses in rural areas and became Russified to a high degree. In connection with the independence of Moldova, 75 percent indicated Russian as their second language while only 4 percent claimed to be fluent in Moldovan, the official language of the new state, closely related to Romanian. About 91 percent gave Gagauz as their mother tongue.

    Towards the end of perestroika, a Gagauz cultural club was established in the main town of Komrat, and it gained gradual importance and finally became an umbrella organization, Gagauz Halki (the Gagauz people). A representative of this organization later took part in establishing the Moldovan “Popular Front” in the capital Chisinau in May 1989. The general underdevelopment in Gagauz areas made the small Gagauz intellectual elite set their hopes on the Popular Front's reform program.

    A Gagauz university, half private, half state financed, was opened in the main town of Komrat in 1991 with about a thousand students divided among three faculties of agriculture, economics and “national culture.” The major Moldovan daily newspaper began to issue a weekly supplement in Gagauz, Ana Sözü (mother tongue), and a writer's union was founded. Moldovan TV and radio began sending monthly broadcasts in Gagauz, and a local TV station was established in Komrat as well as a small film academy.

    However, conflicts within the Gagauz group were a major obstacle to efforts to revitalize the language and the national culture. Some of the leading personalities tried to link up with their Turkish background while others stressed the Russian roots of the Gagauz culture and tried to strengthen ties between the Gagauz community and the Russian Federation. For obvious political reasons the Popular Front in the capital Chisinau supported the first wing and, in 1993, a Latin alphabet for the language was adopted, which had been drawn up in collaboration with Turkish language experts.

    When the Popular Front acquired an increasingly pronounced Romania-friendly focus in its activities, the Gagauz lost interest in it. From the Gagauz viewpoint it had primarily been seen as an instrument for obtaining economic and political concessions from the central government in the capital. Most Gagauz had no desire to leave the Soviet Union and therefore strongly opposed the Popular Front's pan-Romanian tendencies.

    In reaction to these, an autonomous Gagauz Republic was proclaimed in September 1989. Tension increased between the Gagauz and the central government culminated in August 1990 when, as mentioned above, the “Gagauz Soviet Socialist Republic” was proclaimed.

    The organization Gagauz Halki was outlawed. Troops made up of Moldovan “volunteers” and strengthened by vodka set off for the Gagauz areas using stolen public buses. The Gagauz, for their part, organized a self-defense force and at the same time “worker brigades” were assembled from Transnistria, the other separatist republic in Moldova, to assist the Gagauz. In late October 1990, some 40,000 Moldavians stood against as many Gagauz and Russian and Ukrainian-speaking Transnistrians. The small Moldovan militia could not keep the situation under control and clashes led to fatalities. A state of emergency was declared and peace and order could only be restored by the intervention of Soviet special forces stationed in Ukraine.

    When, on Dec. 1, 1991, the Republic of Moldova held its first presidential election following independence, the Gagauz again expressed their wish for sovereignty — this time through a clear majority in a referendum. A constitution was adopted and a presidency established with Stepan Topal, a construction engineer, as first head of state. The capital city became the largest town in the Gagauz area.

    This decision was not accepted by the Moldovan government in the capital Chisinau. The Moldovan declaration of independence in 1991 further widened the rift since the Gagauz leaders welcomed the coup in Moscow as an attempt to stop the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Like many other small peoples in the former Soviet empire, the Gagauz considered reawakened nationalism a greater threat to their future than Soviet “internationalism.” It gradually became clear that the main purpose of the declaration of this republic had not been real independence; this action had primarily been aimed at obtaining greater freedom from the central government.

    After the parliamentary elections in Moldova in 1994 these demands received a better hearing and both new Prime Minister Sangheli and the President of the Republic Snegur stated that they were in favor of Gagauz independence.

    In December 1994, the Moldovan parliament adopted a law concerning Gagauz autonomy. In the preamble, the Gagauz are designated a people (“popor”) and the need to preserve and develop their national identity is underscored. By this law an “autonomous territorial unit with a special legal position in the form of self-determination for the Gagauz, which is a constituent part of the Republic of Moldova” was created. As a special concession to the Gagauz, the agreement also contains a clause to counter their fears of a future Moldovan union with Romania according to which, should the status of Moldova as an independent state be changed, the people of Gagauzia have a somewhat obscure right to “external self-determination.”

    Under the agreement on autonomy a Popular Assembly, Halk Toplusu, shall be elected directly for a period of four years with the authority to legislate in matters concerning culture and education, the local economy, building construction, health care, environmental issues, local budget and social security. Foreign and defense policy are entirely in the hands of the central government and it is further stated in the agreement that all laws that may contravene with Moldova's constitution are invalid. Furthermore, one of the two deputy speakers in the assembly must come from an ethnic group other than the Gagauz.

    The highest person in authority is the governor, “bashkan,” who must be at least 35 years of age, speak Gagauz and may not be elected for more than two four-year periods. The governor is also an ex officio member of the Moldovan government and may be removed from office by a two-third's majority in the Popular Assembly. For his assistance the governor has a local government in the form of an executive committee (Bakannik Komitesi).

    In contrast to the situation in the separatist republic Transnistria, the problem of irregular military forces was solved by integrating the Gagauz free troops with the Moldovan domestic troops, who even received remuneration for their solidarity with the central government.

    All three languages, Gagauz, Russian and Moldovan, were made official in the area.

    On 5 March 1995 referendums were held in 36 municipalities in southern Moldova, 30 of which joined the autonomous area. In the five districts that today make up the Gagauz area, Gagauz Yeri, the Gagauz constitute the majority of the population in only two. In both cases, including the main town of Komrat, they are not more than about 65 percent of the population. In all there is a Gagauz majority in only 28 villages and small towns in the entire area.

    Gagauzia now covers 1,800 square kilometers, or slightly more than 5 percent of Moldova's surface area, and has approximately 170,000 inhabitants. However, there are no official maps of Gagauzia, probably mainly in order to avoid overtly demonstrating the geographic split-up. The autonomous area may be described as an archipelago with four large and a number of lesser islands in the landscape of southern Moldova.

    In the Gagauz case, no news may be said to be good news and since autonomy was introduced in 1995, the Gagauz issue has not been a troubling element leading to headlines in the international media. What originally appeared to be a regional conflict that might threaten the unity of the state of Moldova has been reduced to a question of local self-government.

    It has, however, entailed one problem. When the conflict was most acute, the number of visitors from the OSCE, Council of Europe, the EU and other international institutions and organizations was so extensive that a restaurant of relatively high quality could be run in Komrat. It became the first victim of the peaceful settlement.

    Gagauzia has again become a forgotten area on the fringes of Europe's poorest country with the difference that the region now has its own flag, pale blue with three white stars in the left corner and red and white stripes at the bottom.

    As mentioned above, the Gagauz language is closely related to Turkish. Approximately 80 percent of the vocabulary is about the same, but the language has been affected by the fact that the Gagauz are Christians. Via church language, Slavic elements have been introduced and Gagauz has also been influenced by its Romanian-speaking environment. One problem is that Gagauz has stagnated as a language and, so to speak, remained at an everyday level without words and expressions for modern phenomena. However, through its close relationship with Turkish, this problem can be remedied and Turkey has recently made teachers available for Gagauz schools.

    Furthermore, Gagauz students are welcome at Turkish universities and, through a special exchange program, Turkish teachers and students play an active role at the university in Komrat. A Gagauz library has been financed with Turkish money as well as the shift from the Russian Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin alphabet. Also, the Turkish Ministry of Culture has published a series of books on Gagauz history and culture.

    There are also Gagauz settlements in the regions around Odessa in Ukraine and Rostov in Russia. Furthermore, small groups live in the vicinity of Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan and in the areas around the capitals of Kyrgyzistan and Uzbekistan, Bishkek and Tashkent, respectively.

    In connection with the last ethnic census in Bulgaria in 1905, 6,983 people stated they were Gagauz. The number is probably no greater today. They continue to live in the regions around their original center, the town of Kavarna on the Black Sea coast. However, contacts between them and the Moldovan Gagauz were broken long ago. During the Communist period the Bulgarian authorities usually refused to grant them travel visas and if such a visa was obtained, a new struggle had to be faced with the Romanian bureaucracy for a transit visa.

    In Bulgaria the language is spoken only by elderly people and Gagauz culture is dying out. All that remains are folk songs and folk costumes, some special dishes and distinctly Gagauz superstitions. A black cat that washes itself means bad luck, horses are said to bear devils within them and before a wedding a bridegroom must climb to the top of a tree and sit there drinking wine if he is to be happy in his married life.

    There are also smaller groups of Gagauz around Alexandroupolis in northeastern Greece.

    The former Gagauz ethnic group in Romania appears to be completely Romanized now. The Gagauz have been well aware of this danger and this has certainly been a strong additional factor for their striving for autonomy and distrust of all schemes of a Moldovan association with Romania. There are probably also many Gagauz living in Turkey today. However, unlike the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, the Turkic minorities of the Balkans and the Muslims in Bosnia, the Gagauz cannot count on Turkish citizenship should they move to Turkey. The Act on Turkish Citizenship, based on jus sanguinis, clearly has a religious component. Blood ties are not enough and the religious factor thus plays a part even though Turkey is a secular state. * Ingmar Karlsson is Sweden's consul general in Istanbul. The above lecture is part two of a lecture given by Karlsson at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul on Feb. 22, 2006.

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